The siren wailed, cutting through all other noise inside the firehouse. Throughout the building, men and women paused in their current activities, their heads rising up like deer sniffing at the breeze.
In the break room, I cursed as I fought at the blankets on the cot that tried to ensnare me, wrapping around my limbs. By the time I managed to fight my way free, I could already hear the rhythmic thudding of boots as the other firefighters hurried downstairs.
Scrambling up from the bed, I checked myself. I wasn’t wearing much besides an undershirt and boxers, but that would just save me time in changing into my protective gear. I sprinted out of the dark break room, grabbing the fireman’s pole and sliding down to the bay floor.
Expressions were tense as we all loaded up our gear and hurried to our trucks. The last summer had been one of the hottest and driest on record, and the whole area was ready to go up in flames with just one spark in the wrong place.
We knew how much pressure rested on our shoulders.
I ran for my own truck, number nineteen. A lucky number, according to Stephen King. I enjoyed his books during my downtime, although some of the plots seemed a bit hackneyed.
I pulled myself up onto the truck, climbing into the cage on the back. I caught Charlie’s eye in the rear view mirror, and he gunned the truck into life as soon as my foot left the cement floor.
Next to me, my fellow cage rider, Claire, gave me a chuckle. “Just barely made it, huh?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at me.
Before answering her, I checked my equipment, patting myself down to make sure I had everything. Coat, gloves, tank, mask machete. Everything was in place.
“Not my fault – I was asleep,” I answered her, once I’d confirmed that all my equipment was in place. I loosened the machete in its holster, just so that it would slide out easily if I needed it. “I made damn good time for starting from being unconscious.”
Claire just smirked back at me. One of the few female firefighters to make the cut, even with our limited manpower, she never missed a chance to deal out a stinging insult to the men around her. Most of us, however, had learned to shrug them off, knowing that she just needed to keep on proving her worth.
We all wanted to belong. We all needed to constantly validate that we belonged on the team.
The truck swung out, heading down the streets with siren wailing as Charlie steered us towards our destination. “What’s the call about?” I asked Claire, my voice raised to carry over the rushing wind.
“Not sure – think it’s industrial!” she shouted back. “We might have some Zees wandering around, too, spreading the blaze!”
I cursed. I hated dealing with Zees. Sure, they were an almost unavoidable part of this job, but they never quite sat right with me.
It wasn’t like they were dangerous, most of the time. Sure, they’d try and take a bite out of you if they caught you sleeping, but most of them didn’t have much strength left, and they weren’t smart enough to get through a door or past a barrier.
Still, those dead eye sockets always gave me a little shiver. I could never quite forget that they’d once been someone’s family, someone’s parent or friend, reduced to so little.
They were a problem for us, however. All that dry, desiccated flesh was flammable – and even when they caught ablaze, they kept on moving, trying dumbly to get away.
I turned and glanced over my shoulder. Soon enough, I could see the big, dark plume of smoke rising up from the buildings ahead of us. The fire. Charlie didn’t slow the truck, but he gave a toot of the horn to let us know to get ready.
As we pulled around the last corner, and the burning factory came into view, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot more Zees around than usual. Most of them weren’t alight, at least, but they seemed to be everywhere; the truck crunched over a couple of them without stopping.
My radio crackled as the truck came to a stop. “Call from Dispatch,” Charlie announced to us. “Apparently, the Zees were being held somewhere around here. Boss says to try not to kill them if we can avoid it.”
I saw Claire roll her eyes as she picked up her comm to respond. “Don’t kill them? Charlie, they’re a fire hazard, even if they can’t bite through our suits. What are we supposed to do, politely ask them to stand aside?”
“Hey, just relaying orders,” our truck’s driver replied. “Don’t shoot the messenger. Just don’t cut them down if they’re not a problem.”
Raj, the co-pilot sitting up front, didn’t break radio silence. But I knew that he had to be wearing a hell of a scowl right now. Raj had his own vendetta against Zees, and we knew when he was driving – he always swerved to make sure he got them under our big wheels.
No time to think about that now, though. With the truck stopped, Claire scrambled back to get the hose up, focusing on washing down the outside of the building, cutting off flames before they could spread. I, on the other hand, climbed down from the truck.
“Any word on people inside?” I asked in the comm.
“No clue,” came the response. “Give it a check, best as you can, but don’t push too hard if you feel it’s unsafe. It’s a factory, after all, and the place is liable to come down soon.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I could already feel the heat radiating out from the building, pushing against my exposed face. I flipped my mask down to protect myself.
One of the Zees came tottering out of the building as I strode closer, waving its skeletal, emaciated arms above its head as it gasped out a soundless shriek. I could already see the flames climbing up the left side of its body.
My machete slid smoothly out of its scabbard. The first stroke took off the Zee’s head, and the counterstroke took off a limb and part of the torso. The poor thing collapsed down to the ground, still blazing fiercely.
I shook my head for a moment, feeling bad for the dumb, now twice-dead corpse, and then headed into the burning building.